Lydia Wilson Marshall

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, DePauw University

The grim state of the academic job market in archaeology is no secret. The number of Ph.D. graduates in our discipline greatly outnumbers the number of tenure-track jobs available. Because of these poor odds, beginning an academic job search can feel bewildering. While many aspects of the job search remain out of your control, there are steps you can take to bolster your chances of landing a coveted tenure-track position. No less important is developing your ability to take care of yourself during this grueling process. Here are some tips.

  1. Prepare. No amount of smarts during the job search will make up for a lack of preparation as a graduate student. To be a strong candidate, you need to demonstrate your ability to do the job advertised. You want search committee members to view you not as an excellent student but as a colleague with a high potential for scholarly productivity, exceptional teaching, and effective service. By the time you graduate with your Ph.D., you should have presented your dissertation research in academic conferences and published aspects of it in peer-reviewed journals. Applications to teaching-focused schools will be pretty well sunk by a lack of teaching experience so take advantage of opportunities you have as a graduate student to design and teach courses as the primary instructor. Have a mentor observe your class so that he or she can speak to your teaching in a recommendation letter. Volunteer for service at your school or join a committee in the Society for Historical Archaeology. Remember, you want to present yourself as a proven commodity. Hiring a new tenure-track professor represents a potentially multi-decade commitment on the part of the department and the institution. The process is stressful for search committees too, and you want to be able to convince committee members that hiring you is a sure thing, not a risk.
  2. Shift your perspective. The academic job market in no way represents a meritocracy. To get a job offer, you don’t need to be “the best” by any universal or objective measure. Rather, you need to be “the best” at convincing a search committee that you will solve their problems. Every job search represents a problem or set of problems that a department or institution is trying to address. The job search could be an attempt to replace the course offerings of someone who is retiring, expand the curriculum in new ways, attract and retain new majors, provide relief for other faculty in the rotation of core courses, strengthen the graduate program, or improve the department’s research profile, for example. After reviewing the job ad, research the institution via its website. This research will give you a better understanding of the institution’s specific mission and what problems the job search is attempting to address. Then, consider, how can you best convince search committee members that you are their solution? Faculty serving on the search committee are likely to be harried and busy; and the search, of course, represents only a small fraction of their total professional responsibilities. You need to strategically adjust your cover letter and other application materials to make the connections between your expertise and abilities and their needs as clear as possible. Remember, search committees not in the business of deciding who is the “best” scholar or teacher; rather, they are simply trying to solve a problem that they have.
  3. Accept the winding road. Following Ph.D. graduation, many archaeologists work in postdocs or term teaching positions prior to transitioning to a tenure-track job. These non-permanent positions can make you a stronger candidate for a later tenure-track search, so try to view them as learning opportunities rather than consolation prizes.
  4. Follow the rules. Academic CVs, cover letters, and other application materials follow certain conventions in their organization and presentation. Make sure to use job search resources at your institution to learn and follow these conventions in order to demonstrate your competence to search committee members. Also, make sure to submit exactly the materials requested in the job ad. Not following an advertisement’s directions communicates a lack of care to search committee members. Applicant pools for tenure-track positions in archaeology often include more than one hundred candidates, so you need to communicate as much care as possible in your materials.
  5. Consider audience. I teach in a liberal arts institution as the only archaeologist in a combined sociology and anthropology department. Thus, the search committee that hired me as a tenure-track assistant professor included no archaeologists. Even in larger institutions, cultural anthropologists and a couple of faculty members appointed from outside the department are likely to be on the search committee. Write your application materials with this diverse audience in mind and avoid jargon. You should also tailor job materials to the kind of institution to which you are applying. For example, you must do more to show that you take pedagogy seriously when applying to teaching-focused schools.
  6. Be a colleague. If you are selected for a phone, Skype, or campus interview, remember that search committee members are not seeking a great student but instead are seeking a great colleague. While you should be interpersonally pleasant, avoid being overly deferential. You also need to project confidence in how you carry yourself and answer questions. Try to answer questions thoughtfully and honestly. Do not simply acquiesce or give the answers you assume are wanted. Be prepared for challenging questions, particularly following the job talk. Even if a question seems purposefully antagonistic, remain unflappable, try to engage with it, and avoid a defensive response. Remember, the “interview” often extends to informal interactions with search committee members, including meals and rides to the airport, so be thoughtful and purposeful in how you craft and navigate these interactions.
  7. Feel them out. Phone, Skype, and campus interviews are a chance for you to get to know an institution better. Most such interviews will end with a chance for you to ask the search committee questions. Be prepared and thoughtful in the questions you ask. Some of the more revealing questions I posed during my campus interview include “What do you like about teaching here?” and “How would you describe the student body?” Do not ask basic questions about the institution that a simple Google search can answer, such as student body size, as that, again, implies lack of care and research on your part. The campus visit also offers rare insight into your working conditions should you receive the job. Use the visit to assess whether you actually would be happy in a position there.
  8.  Negotiate. If you are fortunate enough to receive a tenure-track job offer (often via phone), it may be difficult to resist the temptation to immediately accept. However, you must not. All future raises will be based on your starting salary, so even a thousand dollars’ difference in salary for your first year many mean tens of thousands more pay over the course of your career. Instead of immediately accepting the job offer, express your pleasure and assure the administrator or chair that you will look over the offer and respond. Ask about a timeline for when a response is needed. Then, prepare to make a higher salary request by gathering comparative pay data (for example, from public universities that have their salary data freely available online). You also will need to prepare a request for research start-up funds. To make a feasible start-up request, you should talk to mentors, peers who have been recently hired at similar schools, and the search committee chair to get a sense of scale for the institution. Above all, you should make reasonable requests that show you understand the school. For example, if you are joining a teaching-focused institution, don’t ask for an immediate year of research leave before joining the faculty as this request implies that you don’t understand or want to support the school’s teaching mission.
  9. Consider new paths. The dearth of available tenure-track teaching positions in archaeology means that some truly exceptional scholars and teachers won’t be hired even after several years on the market. Given the years and effort that archaeology Ph.D. graduates have put into their chosen profession, deep grief is entirely warranted should you find yourself in this situation. It may be little comfort, but it’s still worth noting that a host of external issues have contributed to the anemic market, including broad public divestment in higher education and the ensuing “adjuctification” of the professorate. To move forward professionally, cast a wide net. Many archaeologists have successful and fulfilling careers in historic sites, museums, cultural resource management, and federal or state agencies. If the university environment is particularly stimulating for you, consider if a career in administration could work—for example, in academic policy, grant writing, or international student services. The odds of securing a tenure-track position are low, so you should consider and prepare for some of these other job possibilities while still in graduate school.

The hard truth is that you can be an absolutely excellent archaeologist and never land a permanent tenure-track teaching job. The good news is that there many ways of having a fulfilling career, even as an archaeologist, outside the college classroom. I wish you good luck finding your way.

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